Meet MNFF: Alumni Interview with Thomas D. Herman

Welcome back to Meet MNFF, a biweekly series of interviews with award-winning Festival alumni. Today, we chat with Thomas D. Herman, whose film Dateline-Saigon won Best Documentary Feature at MNFF4 in 2018. The film tells the story of five young journalists whose courageous reporting during the early years of the Vietnam War in the face of fierce opposition from the government is uncannily relevant to challenges journalists face today. 

MNFF’s Sophie Hochman caught up with Herman to discuss the ten year process of making the film, its lasting political message, and meeting a personal hero at MNFF. 

You screened Dateline-Saigon at MNFF in 2018. What was it like taking that film on the festival circuit? 

The film was about ten years in the making. And unlike or maybe like some documentaries, I didn’t know what the film was going to be when I started it. I knew that I wanted to do a film about journalism and a very controversial chapter in American journalism. I wanted to examine why they were doing what they did, and what happened to them as young journalists who went over to Vietnam thinking they were going to carry the flag and support the troops, and what happened when they became critical. These are all young reporters, all at the beginning of their careers, and they all went on to win Pulitzer Prizes. They all thought that this experience in Vietnam, and the relationships they made, was the most important in their long and storied careers as journalists. I had the cooperation of a lot of great people, including the protagonists, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett, the great photographer Horst Faas, and Malcolm Brown, probably names you aren’t familiar with, but prominent journalists in their generation. 

So I finally finished the film and started entering it into festivals, including MNFF, and, lo and behold, it started getting accepted into festivals. In the era of President Trump making the press the enemy, its message, which is about the importance of an independent press holding the government to account, became ever so relevant. Even though it was dealing with a case history of 50 years ago, it was square in the middle of a major public debate, which I think helped the interest of festivals. And it started to get into festivals. It ended up winning four or five Best Documentary features. I don’t know if Middlebury was the first of those four or five, but it was early on and it was a wonderful springboard to things that happened thereafter.

After MNFF, Dateline-Saigon was picked up for distribution. Would you mind talking a little bit about that process? 

A festival is as much as anything else a market – it’s a way to get films seen, critiqued, and hopefully, to help one find distribution. Even with all of the many platforms that are available now, finding a good platform for distributing a documentary film is difficult. It took me quite some time, maybe six months or nine months after Middlebury, and I have to give Lloyd [Komesar, MNFF Festival Producer] credit. He made a call to a guy he knew at First Run Features, and within a month, I had distribution. My film is now being streamed in 56 countries, on Amazon Prime, on Apple TV, iTunes, on Kanopy, and a couple of other platforms. When I get an email from somebody in Slovakia, or Thailand, saying nice things about the film, it’s very gratifying. To have a film discussing the importance of a free independent press holding the government to account is an important message. And the ancillary message is, it’s always in danger. Every generation has to fight to protect this press freedom. Well, I consider that successful, and the people who were on my team should be happy. So I give a lot of credit to Middlebury and to the people I worked with on this film for doing that. 

What lesson do you think the film could teach in a post-Trump moment, where the clash between government and press might be less obvious than it was during his term?

In every generation, there’s a struggle for press freedom, and the importance of an independent media. What is important for people to know is that the media wasn’t under assault only from Trump. I mean, he took it to a new level that many people couldn’t imagine. But you can go back to Richard Nixon, who had an enemies list, you can go back to Abraham Lincoln, who threw some reporters in jail and censored them, you can go back to Thomas Jefferson. There’s always a tension between the press and the government. The government has one role, and wants to get its message out, and the press has a different role. But it’s a fragile freedom, and people have to understand that it’s not just Trump, and Trump won’t be the last person to put the freedom of the press in jeopardy. When we talk about freedom of the press, it’s not abstract: it means the freedom for you and me and everyone else to understand what the government is doing; after all, they’re supposed to be working for us. The government has a tendency to over-classify things, to hide its mistakes, for political reasons rather than national security reasons, and will continue to do so. So we all have to be vigilant, my generation, your generation, everybody. That’s an important lesson for people to understand. Don’t be caught in this “Oh, it was only Trump” discourse. We all have to continue to fight this fight.

In addition to being a documentary filmmaker, you are a lawyer. How has your background in law influenced your filmmaking sensibilities?

It has influenced me both directly and indirectly. I also, in my checkered past, was a journalist. I was a radio correspondent for NPR, I was a field producer for CNN. So I’ve been out in the field. I have some sense as to what journalists do, what their challenges are. But the law gives me a couple of things. First of all, it teaches one to ask questions and elicit information in a way that you’re trained to do, for depositions, for gathering information, and so forth. So I think I became both a better interviewer and a better listener from my training as a lawyer.

Also, practicing law has given me the ability to finance my “bad habits,” or my passion for filmmaking. Documentary filmmaking isn’t necessarily a money making proposition. But I am happy that I can spend time helping to underwrite my creative passions by having a day job while making films. During the last six months of editing Dateline-Saigon, I was still working in a law firm. I took over a conference room in my law firm, and made it into an editing suite and brought my editor in. That’s where he went to work every morning. None of the lawyers in the firm could use it for six months. I’d go down the hall and spend half a day in the edit room and go back down the hallway to my office and spend the other half of the day as a lawyer. It worked.

What have you been working on since the festival?

First of all, I can’t name names now, but a prominent Hollywood producer is optioning Dateline Saigon as a feature film. I think we both know that many more films are optioned than are actually produced, but you don’t get to production unless you first have been through optioning. It’s a very exciting process. Also, I’ve been developing a couple of ideas for the next documentary, which I just will not yet reveal –  I find it to be bad luck until I settle on something. The way I make a film is really an immersive experience that I’m going to be spending years working on. The idea has got to be both right for me, and I’ve learned enough now that I want to have a distributor along with me as I am building the film, so that it can move from completion to delivery to distribution. So I’m working on those. I have also been involved as a producer or a co-producer or script writer on two other documentaries, both of which are in production now. So I’ve been keeping my little finger, or big finger in it since the great MNFF.

Do you have any favorite memories or stories from MNFF? 

I think the film was accepted into eight or ten festivals before I basically said, I’m done. Middlebury was my favorite, no question about it.The cherry on top of the sundae was winning the award, and the competition was stiff. It was a big surprise to me when I got the call from Lloyd that I had won, particularly when he advised me of the competition, so it was very, very satisfying. Middlebury is a gorgeous town, and it was my first visit there. The days I spent there were just terrific. 

More specifically, I got to meet some amazing people, heroes of mine, if you will: Peter Davis, who is the Academy Award winning director of a 1974 film called Hearts and Minds. If you haven’t seen it, it is a wonderful film about Vietnam. It really set the standard on film documentaries. Thanks to Lloyd and to Jay, I had breakfast in the Middlebury Inn with a hero of mine, and a hero to many documentary filmmakers. Barbara Kopple, another Academy Award winning director and producer, was there. In fact, she had to leave early and I was asked to sit in to take her place on a panel. I had to pinch myself! Barbara Kopple was sitting here, and little old Tom Herman has been asked to be brought in off the bench, if you will. It was very exciting, very fulfilling. As I said, it was no question my most favorite festivals, and there was not a bad one that I was in. They’re all fun, but this was a head and shoulders above the rest.